by The Lady Eve
It was 1948 in post-war France when mystery writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac met for the first time at an awards ceremony for the Prix du Roman d'Aventures, a literary award for crime fiction. Narcejac received the prize that year and Boileau had taken the honor ten years earlier; in another two years they would become writing partners. Together the pair forged their own approach to the French mystery novel, placing new emphasis on character and suspense.
Today their work is considered a hybrid of two genres: the traditional whodunit and le roman noir (thriller). Le roman noir of that era was influenced by crime writers like Hammett and novelists of the naturalist school like Emile Zola, but Boileau and Narcejac were more inspired by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe. What most post-war French crime fiction did have in common was a dark vein of fatalism and, according to Michel Lebrun, another genre writer, Boileau-Narcejac’s work was marked by such persistent gloom that “...the hero, for them, should never wake up from his nightmare.”
|Les Diaboliques (1955)|
Flavieres is a disaffected loner living in Paris at the outset of World War II. He broods endlessly, roams empty streets at night and listens to war reports on the wireless. He loathes Gevigne, envies him, and soon covets his elegant, morose wife to the point of fixation. Flavieres first meets Madeleine when he rescues her from a leap into the Seine. They form an off-balance alliance; he is bewitched by her and she calls him “my poor friend.” When one day she takes him to a remote church with a high tower and disappears up into the belfry, Flavieres is unable to follow. His detested lifelong acrophobia has paralyzed him on the steps. And then, through a window, he sees Madeleine’s body plummet to the ground. Before he flees the scene he laments, “Poor little Eurydice! She would never come back from the nothingness into which she had plunged.” Flavieres will next vanish into the war and out of the country, telling no one, not even Gevigne, what he has witnessed.
This scenario would be re-envisioned and brought to life on film a few years later:
Paramount Pictures bought the rights to D'entre les morts for Alfred Hitchcock not long after it was published. The film went into production in 1957, a significant point in the director's career.
|Dial M for Murder (1953)|
In 1954 Lew Wasserman brokered a deal between Hitchcock and Paramount that virtually opened the skies for the director. He would be able to work independently, be granted production budgets far more robust than he'd known at Warners, and would own those films he both produced and directed. The films Hitchcock made for Paramount during the '50s comprise an oeuvre within his oeuvre: Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). North by Northwest (1959) would seem to be a part of this collection but it was made for MGM.
|The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)|
|Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut|
And so it was that Alfred Hitchcock embarked on the film adaptation of D'entre les morts just as he arrived at the pinnacle of his career.
In 1940 Hitchcock had battled producer David O. Selznick for creative control on the 'picturization' of Rebecca. When he adapted Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train to the screen in 1951 it was under a tight Warner Bros. budget. Regardless of power struggles and financial constraints both films became classics on the strength of Hitchcock's mastery of his medium. By the time he began the film he would christen Vertigo, Hitchcock had reached full maturity as an artist and possessed the resources and the control to conjure a wide-screen Technicolor dreamscape; a very personal expression of timeless themes.
Familiar motifs surface in Vertigo - voyeurism, the lure of an exquisite blonde, a man wrongly accused. And though its plot is set in motion by a mystery and laced with tension, Vertigo was never intended to be a thriller or tale of suspense. Instead, Hitchcock conceived a meditation on desire and illusion, obsession and loss. Rather than "putting the audience through" nerve-jangling terror, he sweeps the viewer into an emotional tailspin.
Boileau-Narcejac's well-honed "suspense narrative" would provide the springboard for Hitchcock's imagination...
|Thomas Narcejac, Alfred Hitchcock and Pierre Boileau|
Keeping the novel's essential elements, its basic structure and plot, themes of obsession and destruction, the vague outlines of its principal characters, Hitchcock would re-imagine D'entre les morts. He would shape from it an allegory of aesthetically and technically meticulous images and sounds and with allusions to ancient myth, Medieval legend, 19th century philosophy and modern psychology. And he would endow Boileau-Narcejac's desolate tale with a romantic heart and an eternal soul.
In transforming a genre piece into an enduring masterpiece, Hitchcock would also create a fascinating portrait of his own inner landscape; a work of art will always reveal the artist. At the same time, much of Vertigo's allure stems from its looking-glass effect upon the viewer. French New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard, one of Hitchcock's great champions at Cahiers du Cinéma, could have been contemplating Vertigo when he observed, "Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self."
A Month of VERTIGO began on January 1 and, over the last month (plus), has featured a series of posts by 12 diverse and talented guest contributors - and me - on the subject of Vertigo. Individually, we have scrutinized Alfred Hitchcock's great masterwork from nearly every conceivable angle. For a complete list of posts, click here.
A Month of VERTIGO has been a success far beyond anything I imagined when the idea first took hold. My deepest gratitude goes out to all who have made it so - from guest bloggers and vloggers to commenters, tweeters, re-tweeters, Facebook friends and those who simply thought it was an interesting concept. A special nod to Dan Auiler whose very fine book, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, inspired me to read the English language edition of Boileau-Narcejac's novel (now simply called Vertigo) - which led to this blog event.